Group Genius: Everyone can be More Creative - But not Alone

An Interview with Dr. Keith Sawyer, author of Group Genius
By Vern Burkhardt
In his book Group Genius, Dr. Keith Sawyer asserts that creativity is always collaborative. The lone genius of inventions is a myth, and he backs up this point with examples such as television, email, game of Monopoly, mountain bike, ATM, the airplane, quantum physics and psychoanalysis. It is group genius that generates breakthrough innovation.

Insights for Individuals and aspiring inventors:
  • All of us have the potential to be more creative; we just need to learn the secrets of group genius.

  • One does not succeed by luck or being blessed with a rare good idea.

  • Success comes through many small sparks and by drawing on collaboration over time.

  • Collaboration exposes one to new and unexpected ideas, making it more likely the mind will engage in the richest types of conceptual creativity — combining distant concepts, elaborating concepts by modifying their core features, and creating new concepts.
Role of Conversation:
  • Conversation is the driver of group genius.

  • Conversation generates innovation if the “Yes, and” approach is used - we accept the other person’s suggestion and build on it further.
Insights for Organizations:
  • The failure of many organizations to encourage collaboration explains why improvisers who seek group flow (a particular state of heightened consciousness) often avoid large companies, and instead join small start-ups or work for themselves.

  • Organizations which encourage improvisational teams innovate more effectively. Most innovative teams spend less time planning and more time acting — instead of planning, they improvise.

  • The leader of a collaborative team has to establish a relaxed environment within which group genius is more likely to happen. This is in contrast to the traditional view of the team manager who breaks down a given task, keeps everyone on schedule, and coordinates the team members, thereby stifling Group Genius.
Collaborative Webs:
  • To be successful and realize our full creative potential, we must move beyond the linear creativity mindset and tap into the power of collaborative webs.

  • We must shift away from an ownership mentality to a collaborative approach in which managers allow innovation to emerge from a web that includes their company, their customers, their suppliers, other key business partners and even their competitors.
I recently had an opportunity to ask Dr. Sawyer about some of the interesting ideas and observations he included in his book.

1. Question: Your book is devoted to describing Group Genius. If you were describing this concept to someone who had not read your book, what would you say?

Keith SawyerDr. Sawyer:
We often think that creativity is reserved for special people, the “creatives” or geniuses who somehow have better ideas than the rest of us. But this belief in the lone genius is a myth—especially today, when successful innovation is always based in collaboration and in social networks. All of us can tap into the power of collaboration to enhance our own creativity, and my book shows us how.

2. Question: In your book you state that there is a link between group flow and creativity, especially at work. And yet in many work environments there are inherent impediments to creativity such as tight deadlines, long hours, and too much time spent in the planning stage rather than moving to executing. Why do you think that so many organizations have not realized that creativity is a key to their survival and therefore made some fundamental and necessary changes to encourage innovation?

Dr. Sawyer:
Group flow is a state of peak performance that groups reach, when the members blend together just right, and the environment allows a certain kind of focus and concentration on the work. Having a strong vision and shared goals makes group flow more likely. Groups that are in flow often work longer hours, but it’s because they are having such a great time, not because they’re being forced to work hard to meet a tight deadline.

To become more innovative, companies have to implement some very difficult organizational changes. One of the most difficult is to realize that innovation can’t be managed in the traditional top-down manner; there’s always an important element of improvisation, unexpected developments, failures and dead ends, so that the best ideas emerge from the bottom up. And managers are trained to stay in control and to always know what is going on.

3. Question: You give numerous examples to support the myth of the lone genius of historical inventors, and that the truth is always a story of group genius. What do you think are the lessons for people who want to make their living by generating new ideas and inventions?

Dr. Sawyer:
If your goal is to be a traditional solitary inventor, who comes up with patentable new ideas and then licenses them to companies that will make them, I think that model is fading away. The last time that model dominated innovation was the early 19th century. The big shift away from the “lone inventor” model was Thomas Edison, who innovated by creating the first modern research lab, hiring lots of experts, and combining them in effective teams. (The people who worked in Edison’s lab, those who came up with most of the ideas that we now credit to Edison, were quoted as saying “Edison wasn’t really that good of an inventor.”) Most innovations today originate in collaborative teams.

I always say that the best way to have good ideas is to collaborate constantly. You have to talk to people every day, and make sure they come from a broad range of backgrounds. The best way to be more creative is to join together with others, in the kinds of teams that I described in my book.

4. Question: In describing the seven characteristics of creative teams you state that successful collaborative teams practice “deep listening”. What do you mean by that and how can one learn to do deep listening?

Dr. Sawyer:
Deep listening is a concept that I first heard about from improv theater actors. What most of us do in conversation is that we listen only half way, because we’re already thinking about what we want to say next. But if you do that in an improv theater performance, nothing new and original will ever emerge. New ideas emerge from conversation when each person’s response is a direct elaboration of what just came before; and, you can’t really know what will be the best thing to say until you fully heard what was just spoken.

5. Question: You state that collaborative conversation accelerates the innovation process because the sparks happen in real time. Since this is the driver of group genius what are some practical steps an organization can take to encourage this type of conversation?

Dr. Sawyer:
Many companies are doing this right now. One key piece of advice is to create environments that foster spontaneous, unplanned encounters. Office furniture companies like Steelcase and Herman Miller are way out in front on this, and they’ve custom-designed new floor layouts that are designed to foster these creative conversations: by, for example, designing an office floor using a hub-and-spoke layout, where the hubs are spaces for meeting and getting coffee and the spokes are the walkways. The intent of this layout is that anytime you need to walk somewhere, you have to pass through one or more hubs, increasing the chance that you’ll bump into someone. Google has a famously large sweeping staircase, and has installed wall outlets all the way up the staircase just to encourage people to sit on the steps with their laptops, so that they’ll have more encounters with the other folks who are going up and down the stairs.

6. Question: Perhaps related to the previous question, could you explain what you meant when you stated in your book that creative people have their most significant insights while in a flow state and that the most common place people experience flow is in conversation with others?

Dr. Sawyer:
That’s from research by Professor Mike Csikszentmihalyi, the psychologist who coined the term “flow” to refer to a state of peak experience, when you’re fully focused on the task and you lose track of time. The most creative people love their work, and they do it because it helps them attain this flow state. Csikszentmihalyi has done a lot of experimental and observation study of the flow state; and when he interviewed people about flow at work, they ranked “conversation with others” as the most common situation where flow occurred.

7. Question: You say in Group Genius that it’s a law of innovation that successes cannot go up unless failures go up, and therefore there is a need to create an organizational culture that cherishes failure. How can we best go about “cherishing failure”?

Dr. Sawyer:
This is a tough issue! No one likes failure. But the law I refer to says that successful ideas are correlated with the sheer number of ideas, and that no more than one in ten ideas result in a successful product or service. Some companies actually have a “museum of failure”—like Alessi, the Italian design company, and IDEO, the Silicon Valley design firm.

8. Question: How would you recommend a Chief Executive Officer, or perhaps better still a group of motivated employees, promote the right culture and values to make an organization collaborative?

Dr. Sawyer:
I wrote my book to answer this question, so I’m not sure I can give a short version! There’s a lot that has to be done, and it has to start at the top of the organization—only the CEO can foster a culture of openness, communication, expectation for innovative effort, and acceptance of failure.

9. Question: You make a strong case for the death of “brainstorming” as a way to encourage creativity in groups, and yet it seems to persist in many organizations today. Why do such myths persist in organizations?

Dr. Sawyer:
In my book, I talk about “the illusion of group effectiveness”—brainstorming groups always think they’ve been creative. The myth persists because most managers don’t know the research about effectiveness in groups. I’ve been teaching a full-day seminar at our school of business, “Leading Innovative Teams,” to help managers understand how to get their teams to collaborate effectively.

10. Question: You observe that innovative companies reach out to their customers, and they also reach out to other businesses — even their competitors — to build collaborative relationships that lead to innovation. Despite the numerous examples of companies that have successfully followed this model, does this seem to be a paradox?

Dr. Sawyer:
Only certain kinds of collaborative partnerships work, and they have to be very carefully structured. Our overall economy benefits from this kind of network, even when specific individual companies fail, as long as the ideas and the expertise flow forward to other organizations.

11. Question: Some large organizations have implemented expensive and complex Customer Relationship Management systems and processes in order to improve customer service and presumably increase profits. In your book you say that the way to collaborate with customers is to foster links up and down the organization; not to channel customers through a sales contact or the customer service desk. Does that argue against the “traditional” CRM model?

Dr. Sawyer:
I think it does, to some extent. Cisco is one company doing something different, as I describe in my book…it’s a very different way of doing business. For Cisco, it might work only because their customers are other businesses…I’m not sure if it would work if your customers are millions of regular consumers. But some companies are finding success by opening up to a small subset of customers, the “lead users” who just love your product and know a lot about it.

12. Question: You said in your book that you spent two years in the 1990s performing with and collecting video tapes of many jazz and theatre groups, then spent the next 10 years studying these collaborations. You analyzed this data and examined a large number of case studies in the business world. Did you draw any conclusions about the ability of group genius along with its related creativity to solve many of the world’s social, economic and political problems?

Dr. Sawyer:
The complex problems that we face today can only be solved by working together. The pace of innovation has increased, largely because of new technologies that enable greater and more frequent collaborations (telephone, email, inexpensive jet travel, Internet), resulting in a higher standard of living and growth in our economy. I believe that we can channel the power of collaboration to solve pressing social and political issues, as well.

In his book Dr. Sawyer provides many practical ideas on how to establish and foster a creative group. For example, keep the number in the group to the minimum number required in order to avoid “social loafing”, use a skilled facilitator, put in place group rewards, alternate work with frequent breaks, switch between group and individual activities, and include people with complementary skills who enjoy group interaction.

As the business environment becomes more competitive and unpredictable and with rapid technological change, improvised innovation will become more and more important. The successful organization of the future will run on group genius. Dr. Keith Sawyer concludes his book with “I hope this book contributes, as one small spark, to helping humanity attain its true creative potential”. It does, if we will listen.

Keith Sawyer’s book Group Genius was published by Basic Books in 2007 and can be purchased from Borders and Barnes & Noble, and from For additional information go to this website.

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